Review: Samsung Galaxy S4

The list of cool things the Galaxy S4 can do is astonishing. Right out of the box, without downloading a single app, you can perform a plethora of magic tricks.

It follows your eyes, and it will pause a video if it senses you looking away. While browsing the web, you can scroll a page by just tipping your gaze downwards. It recognizes hand movements, and you can scroll through web pages by waving your hand in front of the screen. When listening to music or viewing photos, you can skip tracks or flip through pictures by flicking your hand in the air. When the phone is sitting on your desk nearby, a wave of the hand brings up a dashboard that tells you if you’ve received any new messages. Should the phone ring, you can use the same movement to answer the incoming call.

There’s more. The built-in camera software lets you make animated GIFs, erase annoying passersby from photos and add spoken notes to pictures while you’re taking them. Point the camera at some text, and a cloud-based OCR engine can translate foreign words. Point it at somebody’s business card and it can add the person to your contacts. There’s a universal remote control. There are voice-control features. The list just keeps going. It’s insane.

When I booted up the Galaxy S4 Samsung loaned me for testing, I dutifully sat through the phone’s set-up wizard, which walked me through these features. I spent five minutes being amazed, and I left all of the features on.

Then, over the next five days, I never used them again.

I did normal phone stuff — texting, listening to music, browsing the web, checking Twitter, taking pictures and sharing them on Instagram. I used Google Now to find a restaurant. I paired my Jambox and sat in the sun.

But all that business of waving your hand or moving your eyes to scroll while reading — it only works in the crummy Android browser. It does not work in Chrome, where I do all of my browsing. It doesn’t work in Google Reader or Flipboard or Instapaper or the Kindle app, where so much reading happens. Looking away from the screen doesn’t pause a video in YouTube, only in the Samsung video player. The trick where you wave your hand to advance songs only works in the default music player, not in Rdio or Sonos, where I do most of my listening. The camera extras — the HDR feature, the photo filters, and the tool for making animated GIFs — all yield results that look cartoonish. I just took regular photos.

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